As visitors flock to Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park on Hawai‘i Island to snap photographs and marvel at the steaming vents of the Kilauea volcano, Hawai‘i residents have discovered something new in the air—and for some, it has been breathtaking.
Since 1983, Kilauea, the home of Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, has continuously erupted through a vent located at the cinder-and-spatter cone of Pu‘u ‘O ‘o (high point on skyline), according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS). In March 2008, a second vent opened, creating an even more impressive display of Mother Nature in action.
While this rare exhibition continues to awe visitors and residents alike, the aftermath has been far from spectacular, as Hawai‘i Island, Maui and other parts of the state have been blanketed in volcanic smog, or “vog.” Vog is created when toxic sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions mix with oxygen and atmospheric moisture, yielding a thick cloud of vog. And in the absence of southeasterly trade winds, there is a roadblock-free, virtual expressway for vog to fill the skies of Hawai‘i Island—and make its way across the ocean to invade the Valley Isle.
While the downwind regions of Hawai‘i Island are the unfortunate recipients of the bulk of the SO2 emissions, the state Department of Health (DOH) assures Maui residents that the volcanic haze loses SO2 as it moves farther away from its source of origin; therefore, the vog we see on Maui is a cloudy mass of tiny particles, or particulates, that may include ash, smoke, sulfates, ammonia and trace amounts of SO2, if any at all.
“We’re not saying there is no SO2 in Maui,” said Lisa Young, an environmental health specialist with the DOH Clean Air Branch. “But we can safely assume that by the time it [vog] reaches Maui, it is just particles, not SO2.”
While this may cause some may breathe a sigh of relief, Young cautioned that the particulates in the vog present health concerns for those who may be predisposed or sensitive to airborne irritants. “These particles are definitely a concern,” she said. “The smaller the particle, the deeper it can get into a person’s lungs.”
Indeed, a growing number of island residents, particularly those living in South Maui, are experiencing flu-like symptoms that have been attributed to the vog—a mini-epidemic that has caught the attention of Hawai‘i’s government officials.
In a statement issued last year, the Office of the Governor cautioned, “People with preexisting respiratory conditions are more prone to adverse effects of vog which may include: headaches, breathing difficulties, increased susceptibility to respiratory ailments, watery eyes, and sore throat.” Most troubling, the office said, “The long-term health effects of vog are unknown.”
Kihei physician Dr. Daniel Asimus has seen several patients who have complained of fatigue, headache, sore throat and a “raspy” voice that appeared at the onset of the vog.
One South Maui resident, who requested anonymity, has felt the effects of vog for several months. “Of all the symptoms, the fatigue is the worst,” he said. “The SO2 seems to counteract the effects of caffeine,” noting even two cups of coffee failed to dispel the “fogginess” in his head.
In an effort to keep citizens apprised of these vog episodes, DOH officials designed a color-coded system—similar to the Homeland Security terrorist alerts—to monitor and forecast SO2 levels in the air. The primary objective of the system is to warn residents to take protective actions according to potential hazards presented by volcanic emission levels, based on historical data and weather conditions. The color code system ranges from green (trace amounts) to purple (extreme amounts), and is available on the DOH Website.
In addition to the color-coded advisory system, the DOH is keeping a close eye on the Air Monitoring Station located at Hale Pi‘ilani Park in Kihei. The station was initially designed to measure particles in cane smoke—particles very similar to those in the vog—but Young said it is not equipped to measure SO2 levels, as “there is no reason to measure for SO2.”
However, as the vog becomes more than just a hazy inconvenience for Maui County, there is a likelihood that a SO2 monitoring station will arrive on Maui sometime in the future. “It could happen,” said Young.
DOH advises island residents—particularly those who are sensitive to the vog—to take matters into their own hands by taking preventative measures, including drinking lots of fluids; avoiding high vog areas; steering clear of cigarette smoke, burning trash, mold, pollen and dust; purchasing an air purifier; and of course, consulting a physician or toxicologist.
“It’s important to remember,” said Young. “This is a naturally-occurring thing… it happens, and we don’t know when it will stop.”
Residents can learn more about Maui weather updates at www.hawaiiweathertoday.com or monitor volcanic activity by visiting the USGS Website at http://volcanoes.usgs.gov/hvo/activity/kilaueastatus.php. In addition, the DOH has set up a “Hawai‘i Volcano Helpline” to provide up-to-date information on vog and volcanic emissions. The service is available to the public seven days a week from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on the weekends. Residents are encouraged to call the helpline toll-free at (866) 767-5044.